Being Mercy: The Liberation of Lent

Author: Father Joseph V. Corpora, CSC, ’76, ’83M.Div.

Pr 9 Photo by Peter Ringenberg

At the beginning of Lent the Gospel directs our minds and hearts to the temptations of the devil that Jesus faced when he went into the desert. He is tempted to turn stones into bread, to jump off the roof of the Temple and to worship Satan.

The biblical desert is not so much a geographical location — a place of sand, stones or sagebrush. Rather it is a process of interior purification, leading to the complete liberation from the false self-system and its programs for happiness.

What do I mean by the false self-system and its programs for happiness? The late Fr. Thomas Keating, O.C.S.O., explains that we all have a false self. In a few words, the false self develops around our three most basic instinctual needs — safety and security, affection and esteem, power and control. We all have these instinctual needs. And the false self develops before we reach the age of reason, seven years old or so.

The first one — safety and security — sounds like this: If only I had more money, then I would feel safe. If only I had a second home, then I would feel secure.

The second one — affection and esteem — sounds like this: If only I could get that person to like me, then I would feel complete. If only I could get that person to notice me, then I would be happy.

The third one — power and control — sounds like this: If only I could get that promotion, then I would be satisfied. If only my boss recognized my ability, then I would be rewarded.

Notice the pattern . . . if only I had this, then I would fulfill that need.

All of us have these three instinctual needs and each has an emotional program for happiness connected to it. But these programs cannot possibly work for several reasons, one of which is that these patterns were all developed in us before we reached the age of reason. It’s how we tried to meet our needs as children. The patterns fail us as adults.

In each one of us, self-centered concerns have been built up around these needs for safety and security, affection and esteem, power and control. And then our emotions, thoughts and behavior circulate like planets around the sun. These programs for happiness influence our view of the world and our relationship with God, nature, other people and ourselves.

This is precisely the situation that Jesus went into the desert to confront and to heal. During Lent our work is to confront these programs for happiness and to detach ourselves from them. The word “repent” — like so much associated with Lent — means to change the direction in which we look for happiness in our lives.

In the desert Jesus is tempted by these three instinctual needs. Satan first addresses Jesus’ safety and security. “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.”

After fasting 40 days and 40 nights, Jesus must have been desperately hungry. He replies to Satan that it is not up to him to protect or to save himself; it is up to his father to provide for him. “Not on bread alone does one live, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

God has promised to provide for everyone who trusts in him. Jesus refuses to take his own salvation in hand. Instead he waits for God to rescue him. He knows that his safety and security come from God — not, for example, from a well crated résumé!

Then the devil took Jesus to the holy city, set him on the top of the temple and suggested, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. Scripture says that He will bid his angels take care of you. . . ” In other words, “If you are the Son of God, show your power as a wonder-worker. Jump off this skyscraper. When you stand up and walk, everyone will regard you as a big shot and bow down before you.” This is tempting the need for affection and esteem.

We all need a measure of acceptance and affirmation. But it can get out of control. Not everyone will like us. And no matter how many proofs we have of God’s special love, we may not take our salvation into our own hands. God will save us.

Satan took Jesus to a lofty mountain and displayed before him all the kingdoms of the world, promising, “All these I will bestow on you if you prostrate yourself in homage before me.” A test of his need for power and control. Jesus says, “Get out of my way, Satan. Scripture says that you shall do homage to the Lord your God, him alone shall you adore.”

Adoration of God heals our pride and our lust for power. Service of others, not domination of others, is the path to true happiness.

Out of love for us, Jesus experienced the temptations of these three instinctual needs. Each Lent, Jesus invites us to join him in the desert and to share his trials. Liberation from the false self-system is the ultimate purpose of Lent. This process always has Easter as its goal.

Our Lenten practices — whatever they are — of fasting, prayer and almsgiving are designed to confront and defeat the false self and these instinctual needs and their related emotional programs for happiness. If some of our Lenten practices reinforce our false self, get rid of them. If you get too many likes on Instagram for your Lenten penances, you’re doing something wrong.

As the Lord dismantles our emotional programs for happiness, the obstacles to the risen life of Jesus fall away and our hearts are prepared for the infusion of divine life at Easter. So we use these holy days of Lent as a time of liberation from the false self so that we may be open to a greater share of the divine life which God himself desperately wants to give us.

Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Father Joe Corpora works in the Alliance for Catholic Education and Campus Ministry, and is one of 700 priests whom Pope Francis appointed in 2016 to serve as Missionaries of Mercy. He has written two books of reflections on this experience, The Relentless Mercy of God and Being Mercy: The Path to Being Fully Aliveboth published by Corby Books.